Snyder delays Detroit school closing decisions till May

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday called for a three-month delay in deciding whether to shutter 38 failing schools in Michigan, including 24 in Detroit.

As many as 24 of 119 city schools in Detroit could have been be closed as soon as this summer along with another 25 in 2018 if they remain among the state’s lowest performers for another year, according to a January release of state rankings. But Snyder has asked his administration’s School Reform Office to wait as officials consider other alternatives.

Snyder now says that closing the schools might not be the best option for Detroit students, and has asked the reform office and the Michigan Department of Education to come up with other potential plans to bring the schools around. He gave state officials until May to come up with new plans.

“The entire team at the School Reform Office has worked diligently to analyze data, visit schools and review potential options, but we need to do more before any final decisions can be made,” Snyder said in a statement.

“Any action we take will have long-lasting consequences and we need to take the time to get this right. That’s why I want our SRO team to work closely with State Superintendent Brian Whiston and the Michigan Department of Education to reach out and coordinate all the latest information with local superintendents and districts.”

The decision followed a Wednesday meeting Snyder had with the Detroit Caucus of legislative Democrats, who have lobbied to prevent Detroit school closures.

“I think that’s awesome; it’s actually what we asked for,” said Detroit Caucus Chairwoman and state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit. “We were very forthright, and he was as well. He made a strong commitment.”

“There was a lack of clarity” about how much hardship the closures would pose for students, Gay-Dagnogo said. Some students would have been forced to travel 40 miles to attend another school that meets state standards, she said.

State officials also did not consider that moving kids to another side of the city could “create increased violence” because of warring gang factions, Gay-Dagnogo said.

“We have to be real and understand that,” she said. “That’s violence waiting to happen.”

The 24 Detroit schools have been in the state’s bottom 5 percent of failing schools for the past three years, the criteria under state policy for the Reform Office to authorize school closures.

But if more than a third of Detroit’s schools closed in the next two years, students might not necessarily have another school to attend that’s nearby or easily accessible.

“All kids deserve access to a quality school that will prepare them for a good life after high school,” said Natasha Baker, the state’s school reform officer. “That’s why our team remains dedicated to taking action when schools are not providing students with a quality education; in some instances this has been the case for over a decade.”

Snyder said he understands “the anxiety that parents have when there is a discussion about a school being closed and that everyone wants answers right away. But if we are going to do this right, we are going to have to take the time to do the right thing.

“We have heard from communities and their elected officials about the desire to have more input into this process and we will consider feedback from local communities as we move forward. The focus in all of this needs to be on helping and teaching the kids involved, so even if a school is not closed, there will be some changes made.”

The decision came as the Kalamazoo and Saginaw public school districts are suing the reform office, its director, Natasha Baker, Whiston and other state officials about the potential school closures and an administrative move that placed the reform office more directly under Snyder’s control.

A complaint filed in the Court of Claims this week argued that a Snyder executive order moving the reform office from oversight by the Michigan Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget was unconstitutional.

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Twitter: @MikeGerstein